Bell Accused of Violating Network Neutrality Rules, Blocking Access to HD and Upselling Access

Big telecom giant, Bell, is accused of violating network neutrality rules by blocking access to HD video content and upselling access.

Network neutrality is the principle that internet providers simply provide access to the internet for subscribers. Properly enforced variations prevent the blocking of access, slowing down services, or providing preferential treatment to certain kinds of services (ala zero rating). It’s an absolute core principle of keeping the internet an open network where anyone can prosper. Without network neutrality, ISPs are free to simply charge for access to third party websites and services while giving preferential treatment to services they own and operate. It would make them the ultimate gatekeepers to the internet and there would be nothing those third party providers could do about it.

An example of a violation of network neutrality would be a big ISP would set a data cap to just 10GB per month. This would limit a users ability to access Netflix outright as HD video streaming tends to soak up a lot of bandwidth. However, the ISP offers its own HD video streaming service that customers can pay a little extra for or simply access it for free, but with advertisements. The ISP in question wants to encourage their own customers to use their services, so they zero rate it. This means that if a customer watches content on their service, then the bandwidth usage doesn’t count towards their data cap. As you can see, it is plainly obvious the devastating impact this would have on the open market online. No third party HD video streaming service could possibly compete against that.

This debate was quite a fierce one back in the late 2000’s. ISPs were moving towards throttling BitTorrent, sparking a wave of criticisms about the power and the role ISPs have with respect to how the Internet is delivered to consumers. At the time, ISPs complained that they are over capacity and they can’t serve the internet with bandwidth hogs taking up all the bandwidth on their networks. Those claims turned out to be completely false as ISPs were busted exaggerating how much bandwidth is being used up in their networks. At peak, Bell famously said that 33% peak capacity was “overloaded”.

The debate sparked protests at government demanding better rules to protect consumers from their own ISPs. Of course, one of the problems that network neutrality proponents faced is that ISPs were basically their own companies. They weren’t as vertically integrated as they are today where the ISPs are owned by the same companies as media giants like they are today. This meant that it was harder to make the case for such rules to prevent ISPs from abusing their market powers – which they were clearly gearing up to do at the time (and continue to try to to this day).

It was in these debates that sparked Photoshops of images of what ISP plans would look like without network neutrality. One such example is the following:

At the time, the image showcased a dystopian future where ISPs were, in fact, openly abusing the market, upselling services that have no business being upsold because it doesn’t cost the ISP anything to allow access to such services. It is dystopian future scenarios like this that network neutrality rules were designed to stop.

Now, more than a decade later, we are seeing ISPs trying to do exactly what that seemingly prophetic Photoshop was designed to warn about: charging consumers extra for services that cost the ISP nothing extra to offer access to. Matthew Gamble noted recent changes on Bell to charge extra for merely accessing HD content while downgrading the quality of everyone elses access to SD footage:

Earlier this week I saw a thread on Reddit pointing out that Bell Mobility has started limiting access to HD video streaming on its 5G plans, with access HD video being offered as a $5 upsell on select plans. Here is a screenshot from the Bell website showing that the “Essential” plan only allows access to SD video, while all the high priced plans offer access to full HD quality video streaming:

Redditor anthpere confirms the plans are in fact limiting video streaming, quote “i’m currently on a 5G plan with bell and they limit my video streaming to 480p on all streaming services including youtube and even limit my speed to 250mbps. But there’s an add on they offered me in the bell app that gives me full 5G speed and HD streaming for +$5/mo and it works well. so i decided to do this instead of opting for a more expensive plan just for HD streaming and higher speeds”

The question posed by others in the reddit thread, and the question I hope to answer is “is this a violation of the CRTC rules on network neutrality?”

For background, in 2017, the CRTC established a framework for assessing the differential pricing practices of Internet service providers. The background of the decision came from the Videotron “Unlimited Music” add-on which allowed Videotron customers to access various online music services without it being counted against their data cap. In paragraph 27 of that decision, the CRTC found that “the functions performed by ISPs to establish data connectivity and provide transport over their networks are the same regardless of whether the content being transported is part of a differential pricing practice or not”.

So upon reviewing the four principals of the CRTC framework, Bell would appear to be violating the CRTC 2017-104 policy as they failed the first and second tests, but it may not be that simple as the devil is always in the details. In the 2017-104 decision, the focus was on plans like the Videotron Unlimited Music plan that differentiated traffic based on the category of the content, but the decision did not take into consideration the idea of a plan that offers access to the same content but at a different quality level. I would argue it still does violate the policy as the fundamental function of an ISP is to move bits, not to limit what bits can be accessed. In the case of the “Essential” plan, a customer should be able to access 25GB of “bits” regardless of what those bits are – be it HD video, music, gaming, or just simple web browsing. Further, users have pointed out that in the Reddit thread that this network level filtering can easily be bypassed through the use of a VPN service, which makes sense given that Bell would not be able to inspect the traffic inside of a VPN session. So this makes this 100% a “cash grab” from Bell to get extra money from users with no technical justification.

We independently accessed the Bell plans and confirmed that the screenshot is authentic.

It’s hard to disagree with the conclusions. This does clearly violate the principles surrounding network neutrality. Probably what’s stark in all of this is how the current plan lineup isn’t that far removed from the Photoshop’s of old. The only thing that was really missing is specifically naming different services and charging extra for access. While a complaint was filed with the CRTC, the CRTC currently has a dismal track record at making rulings that actually protect the consumers. Probably the only seemingly consumer friendly ruling we can recall they made recently was blocking Telus from charging customers extra for using a credit card. That ruling capped off a huge string of decisions that appear to be detrimental to consumers and padding the profits of big telecom monopolies including rubberstamping the Rogers/Shaw merger at the earliest possible opportunity.

It’s hard to see if this complaint of an obvious rule violation will really go anywhere, but you never know. There is always room for surprises including the CRTC making a good decision for a change – however unlikely that may be. Yes, we are aware that the CRTC has a new Chairperson now, but it’s wiser to not assume anything has changed until important decisions are rendered. A good first test? Maybe. Still, it is unnerving to see cell phone providers already trying to push further into the territory of just violating the rules and find out what the repercussions are later.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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